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Editorial: The Decline of Reading


Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The continuing decline of reading as a leisure-time activity in America is certainly discouraging to those of us who earn our bread by the written word, but it should also trouble anyone who cares about the future of the republic, which depends on a literate and engaged population in order to survive and thrive.

The latest data on the subject comes from the American Time Use Survey, which is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and which is based on a nationally representative sample of 26,000 individuals. As The Washington Post reported in an analysis that appeared in the Sunday Valley News, the share of Americans 15 and older who read for pleasure on any given day has fallen sharply since 2004, from 28 percent in that year to 19 percent last year. Looked at in another way, the average aggregate reading time among Americans has dropped from 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017. The Pew Research Center has more bad news on this front: About a quarter of American adults say they haven’t read a book, in whole or in part, in any form — print, electronic or audio — during the previous year, a segment of the population that has nearly tripled since 1978.

On the other hand, Americans spent on average 2 hours and 45 minutes per day watching television in 2017, roughly 10 times the amount they devoted to reading for pleasure. We won’t argue that television is any longer the vast wasteland described by then-FCC Chairman Newton Minow in 1961. There is worthwhile and entertaining programming available (more on that a bit later), but the general tendency of much of the fare, now as then, is to turn the mind to mush. At bottom, the viewer experiences the medium passively, compared with the active engagement required of the reader’s mind. A post-literate society, if that is where America is indeed headed, is bound to be one in which individuals are less likely to think independently or challenge their preconceptions, and are more susceptible to manipulation of all varieties.

On an individual level, the pleasures of the written word can enrich life in multiple ways. A good book is an invitation to lose yourself in a world of discovery, or self-discovery, that you are privileged to enter at any moment and which you may inhabit as long as you desire. One hopes that with summer vacation beginning, parents will carve out some time in their children’s busy schedules for them simply to browse the shelves in the local library, take home what intrigues them and spend a few lazy afternoons in the hammock immersed in the magic. Once ingrained, reading for pleasure or instruction is a habit of mind that is almost never outgrown.

Ironically, perhaps, television is in the forefront of promoting reading this year. PBS has launched an initiative called The Great American Read, and it could hardly be more timely. The eight-part series began in May and will continue this fall. It is designed to begin a national conversation about the power and pleasure of reading through 100 of America’s best-loved novels, as determined by a public opinion survey. In conjunction with the national effort, Vermont PBS is promoting its own Summer Reading Program in which it asks Vermonters to read four books that have won Vermont-based awards. The list of 100 novels is intriguing, containing as it does the expected and (by our lights, anyway) the unexpected. It is a good place to begin to kindle, or rekindle, the reading flame.